Larsen’s portrait of Oppenheimer is clearly one of a sympathetic admirer who strives, nevertheless, to present an objective picture of a subject’s weaknesses as well as strengths. Emphasis is placed on Oppenheimer’s personal characteristics, such as his high level of intellectual endowment and his shy, introspective, philosophical nature. His inner world was often a tormented one that brought him at least once to consider suicide.
As Oppenheimer matured, he came to command the respect and admiration of the many diverse types of persons with whom he came in contact. His teachers, from the start, recognized his extraordinary intellectual ability in many different disciplines, including the difficult demands of quantum mechanics, which revolutionized the course of physics in the 1920’s. Students were challenged by his classroom demeanor and enchanted by his stimulating personality, which he allowed them to become acquainted with outside the classroom.
Larsen explains how the political ferment of the 1930’s, occurring while Oppenheimer was associated with Berkeley and Caltech, touched his conscience and led him to left-wing causes, despite his own wealthy, privileged background. His ability to grasp complex situations and to function as a successful leader of workers on various levels in the highly technical atomic bomb project earned for him the respect of figures from the military and political world.
Larsen, a trained journalist, focuses her narrative primarily on the dramatic elements embodied in the construction of the atomic bomb and the security investigations into Oppenheimer’s possible Communist activities, affiliations, and sympathies. Quite understandably, she makes no attempt to delineate the scientific details of Oppenheimer’s work, but she does discuss some of the technological problems encountered, and successfully met, in the designing and building of atomic bombs.
As indicated in the title of this biography, Oppenheimer and the Atomic...
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This biography of Oppenheimer, with its short, specifically focused chapters, holds the reader’s attention and is effective in portraying not only the life of this scientist but also the era in which he lived. Larsen provides the young reader with an excellent introduction to modern historical literature.
The author’s use of notes to document all quotations conforms to good practice and also serves to lead the interested reader to investigate additional related sources. Full titles and publication data for all cited sources are included in her bibliography. This bibliography, while not exhaustive of all recent literature relating to Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, is appropriate for the age group for which Larsen was writing. Reading Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb could open up and stimulate a young person’s interest in the period covered and coordinate well with several areas of cross-disciplinary study.
For the young adult reader, this book can serve as an introduction to the social, political, and scientific climate of the mid-twentieth century. Larsen has given a largely unbiased portrayal of the members of the cast of characters surrounding Oppenheimer, showing the backgrounds from which they emerged and the context in which they operated.
The book’s personal emphasis brings out the individual, human dimension of history. The construction of the atomic bomb and its use in World War II are facts of history that cannot be judged only from hindsight; they must be considered in their contemporary context. Larsen has successfully created this context for young adult readers born decades after these events. This book, with its exciting and dramatic narrative of conflicts among scientists and their interactions with military and political figures, can serve to introduce young readers to a fascinating and complex period in American and world history.